Today we began by a short review on MLA style while touring the Purdue OWL website on MLA style found here. Then, we spent most of our time discussing James Joyce’s “The Sisters” and “The Encounter.” For “The Sisters,” we also talked about your upcoming short essay on the story, its plot, and the literary values the class has listed so far.
The class discussion did a good job at to the sense of “paralysis” that is a theme throughout Dubliners. For “The Sisters,” you were able to pick up on how morally paralyzed the priest seemed to be, especially after the chalice was broken. That leads back to the beginning, with the conversation among the adults about something being “bad for children,” which you interpreted as referring to children spending a lot of time studying with this priest rather than being outside, running around and playing. This potentially speaks. What could be bad here is not just that children should be permitted to be children but also that this paralysis could be transmitted from an older generation to a new one.
For “The Encounter,” you rightly picked up on the weirdness of the old guy that the two boys encountered in the park. First, he talks about how every boy should have a sweetheart, and then he says every boy who has a sweetheart should be whipped. There were many theories on what sparked this change and about what the man was doing when he wandered away for a few minutes and then came back. The story is quite vague about what the man could be doing, but the overall character of the encounter strongly suggests that the man is doing something very unseemly and sexual in public, for which he might feel shame about afterwards, prompting the abrupt change. This led us to a discussion on how sex and the moral punishments focusing on sex could lead to a sort of paralysis that never really addresses the underlying issues, just as the man’s talk about the the proper conduct of boys never really addresses his own conduct, which is the real issue.
After this, we talked briefly about Joyce’s publication woes and about whether this book was “smut” and whether it should have been published. The general class consensus seemed clearly that yes, it should have been published.
Together, these two stories start to give us a sense of what Dubliners is about: giving us a “snapshot” of the Dublin of Joyce’s time. We could get a snapshot another way, such as by having paintings done, for instance. We could even have paintings done of important moments in these stories, such as the strange encounter between these two boys and the weird old man. Alternatively, we could have a journalist’s account of the city. However, none of these ways of creating a snapshot would really capture the experience of living in Dublin at the time. A complex and multilayered portrayal of the city can only be felt through a careful arrangement of myriad details along with characters moving through the setting that make us feel their lives. Even movies or TV shows would not be quite the same, since there can often (although not always) be more of a sense of being inside a character’s head in literature. This suggests a new value to be added to our list: Literature provides a particular kind of experiential “snapshot” of a place or a culture not easily replicated through other ways.
For next time, we will turn to two complex poems Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as well as this essential question: what is added to literature, as a study of humanity, by focus on art as evidence?